Wednesday, February 13, 2008

kabando wa kabando

in the summer of 1995, i got off a plane in nairobi. i had just finished law school, taken the illinois bar exam and my parents had given me a plane ticket to kenya where my brother was living as a law school graduation present.

i hadn't slept for something like 35 hours. i was dead tired, even when i remember it now everything is in a semi-sleepy haze. i hadn't seen my brother in about a year and a half. when i cleared customs i didn't even recognize him at first even though he was one of the few white people waiting at the gate. he had shaved his head and grown a goatee since I’d last seen him.

as we got into my brother's car he said, "are you tired?" yeah, i was tired. i was beyond exhausted. "because i have to meet a friend right now. if you really want, i can take you home to sleep. but i would like to introduce you to my friend." all i wanted to do was sleep, but for some reason i agreed anyway.

on the way to the meeting my brother told me about his friend. he's an opposition politician. he's not really supposed to be meeting people in public. there would be a small risk that we could be arrested. "don't worry, he'll go to prison but we won't. the worst that will happen to us is we'll get deported" he explained. "but, i just got here!" i protested.

we arrived first at a place that looked like a slum to me. when i got out of the car i thought: the last time my head was on a pillow was in chicago, on almost the other side of the world. a kid snorting glue stared at me and my brother as we waited.

that's how i met kabando wa kabando. kabando was active in safina a newly-created political party sponsored by richard leakey. the idea behind safina was to get beyond ethnic-based parties that had fractured any opposition to president moi along ethnic lines. "safina" means "ark" in swahili, as in noah's ark. just as noah took two of every animal on his ark, all tribes would be welcome in the safina party. because safina represented a potentially unified front against the government, president moi attacked the group in his speeches, calling it a plot by leakey (a white kenyan) to reassert neo-colonial white rule in the country.

kabando was a real firebrand, talking about how to bring down the moi government with me and my brother in a seedy restaurant on river road. for the remaining three weeks, kabando was a recurring presence on my visit to kenya. we would run into him giving fiery speeches on a street corner downtown; we went to his trial after he was arrested; we would see his face in the pages of the morning newspaper; and at least once we dropped by his house. my brother and i left nairobi several times during my visit. we took trips to uganda and to the indian ocean coast. but we always returned to nairobi and we always saw kabando when we were there. at some point, I’m not sure when, we once road past the american embassy in my brother's car. (the same embassy that was bombed two years later) "that's where i run to if things get bad" he told me, joking about scaling the walls with kenyan security forces in hot pursuit.

kabando was also one of the last kenyans i saw during my visit. he came with us to the airport when it was time to leave. he had never flown on a plane before, "I’ll see you in america some day", i told him when i said goodbye.

and that's what happened. four years later, at our family's thanksgiving dinner in the poconos, kabando showed up with my brother. he was a graduate student at SUNY stony brook. since my brother moved back from kenya, we've never had a thanksgiving dinner without someone from kenya. they're practically part of our family. kabando came to two of them while he was a graduate student. he also came to my thirtieth birthday party--one of the few who did. my thirtieth fell just after we moved here from chicago and we didn't know that many people yet. kabando gave me nelson mandela's book as a present.

when kabando finished his graduate studies, he returned to kenya and i haven't seen him since. in 2002, the president moi stepped down and kenya had its first real election. kabando ran for parliament and lost. but he was close to new leaders of the country and he ended up as chairman of the kenyan water company.

i kept in touch with kabando off-and-on. i always sent him a postcard whenever i traveled and very occasionally I’d get an email from him. but mostly i kept up with kabando through my brother, who would visit kenya each year and come back with updates about kabando's life. last year my brother mentioned that kabando was running for parliament again in the december 2007 elections. so after after election day i did a search and discovered that kabando had an upset victory against a powerful incumbent. i even posted about it here.

that was before the post-presidential election violence. kabando is kikuku and is close to president kabaki, the incumbent who was declared the narrow winner over allegations of fraud. after kabando responded to my congratulatory email, i asked him about the violence. he assured me that the matter would be worked out soon. it didn't happen as soon as he suggested. but recently, there have been hints that there might finally be a deal, or maybe not.

in any case, my brother (who is visiting kenya now) emailed me this link this morning. it's really crazy. i have a hard time believing that kabando would be orchestrating any violence.

and i also think it's odd that if the ambassador really did have evidence linking kabando to the violence, kabando could make it okay if he sent the embassy an essay demonstrating "his effort and achievements in promoting peace”. maybe the u.s. should stop treating foreign politicians as if they were children.